GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE, Miss.
It's like something out of a movie: A boat filled with tourists — drinking and happy, delighting in the exploits of the passing dolphins — washes up to a rugged island whose exotic name conjures the mystique surrounding it.
This is West Ship Island, the most touristy of the barrier islands in this part of the Gulf of Mexico.
For those seeking an upscale getaway, this isn't it. There's a fishing pier and white sand beach, but the island, with its rugged, brown-washed interior, beckons a hardier traveler, one who doesn't mind using the bathroom in a travel trailer. Who can see past the debris that has washed ashore with the shells to take in the austere beauty and watch for birds and other wildlife. Who digs history and wants to see, firsthand, the erosion of an island that acts as a first line of defense from hurricanes for the mainland.
"The island has changed nonstop, every day," says Frank Bordeaux, a crew member for Ship Island Excursions, the National Park Service concessionaire that takes visitors the roughly 12 miles out from Gulfport. "It's exciting, because you get to point that out to people."
One of the constants, at least of the past 142 years, has been Fort Massachusetts, the brick relic raised in response to fears the island would be used by U.S. enemies. The fort, part of a coastal defense system, went up after the British amassed on what was then known as Ship Island before the Battle of New Orleans. The only action it saw came during the Civil War, when Southerners who had claimed the site exchanged longshot cannon fire with offshore Union troops.
A portion of the island served for a time as a POW camp for captured Confederates, political dissidents and Union soldiers who had not obeyed orders.
A map of the area, from the years immediately after the Civil War, shows a smattering of buildings and an ample buffer of land around the fort. Today, the buildings are long gone, and water laps up against the fort, starting to erode its mortar.
West Ship Island is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is managed by the National Park Service in Mississippi and Florida. Faye Walmsley, the park's Mississippi district interpreter, says her agency is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to try to develop a plan to shore up the beach in hopes of better preserving the fort.
Storms and erosion are a fact of life on the island; in 1969, Hurricane Camille split the island in two: East and West.
Hurricane Katrina, which devastated parts of the Gulf Coast in August 2005, took an immense toll on West Ship Island, swamping it in a storm surge of approximately 35 feet and washing away virtually every structure — restrooms, exhibits, a replica lighthouse.
As much as 18 percent of the island, mostly its tips, was lost in Katrina, ranger Don Holifield said. It's now about 3 miles long, he said, and the gulf between it and the more wild East Ship Island has widened to more than a mile.
"You came to a ghost town today, didn't you?" Holifield tells about a dozen people gathered one recent Sunday for a free interpretive program.
There is a days-gone-by eeriness, particularly away from the main, umbrella-dotted beach, just off the boardwalk that passes the temporary restrooms, outdoor showers, the picnic stand and the snack trailer.
The park service is redesigning its exhibits and hopes to start work on permanent buildings this year to replace those destroyed by Katrina, Walmsley said.
Before the storm, West Ship Island averaged about 64,000 visitors via Ship Island Excursions, the most popular way to get there, she said. Visitation plunged after the storm, but rebounded to about 32,000 passengers on the concessionaire's boats last year.
"It's encouraging that people are returning," said Louis Skrmetta, whose family runs the boat service.
"What you have here is a true National Park experience, for someone not interested in commercialization," he said. "It's something you never forget."